None of the friends or disciples of Jesus understood what was coming, and therefore there is a certain sense in which for all of these weeks leading up to the crucifixion, Jesus was bearing this great burden alone, with one exception. And that exception, if we’re to take his statement clearly that Mary did this in anticipation of his burial, was Mary herself.
Now I think that’s significant. You see Jesus says here that what she has done is going to be preached throughout the whole world in memory of her. That is a great statement, and it was certainly a great extravagant act of her devotion to Jesus. But the real thing that has to be remembered when this Gospel is preached throughout the world is that this woman really did understand what was coming, and she alone was the only one who did. Now you ask the question, “How did she come to understand this thing when the disciples didn’t?” I think the answer is very clear. The reason why Mary was able to understand this when the disciples were not able to understand it is because whenever you see her she is in the same position in which you find her now. What is Mary doing now? Mary is at the feet of Jesus. You go back to the two other stories we have of her and you’ll find that she’s doing exactly the same thing.
The first story we’re told about Jesus and Mary is in Luke 10. Jesus comes to the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Martha is very busy in the kitchen. She’s preparing the meal. And of course there’s nothing wrong with that. Probably Jesus was glad she did because she was preparing it for him. But while Martha was working in the kitchen, Mary was seizing this opportunity to learn from Jesus. It provoked her sister, who basically said to her, “Look, you’re letting me do all the work. You’re not helping but instead are sitting here listening to Jesus.” When Jesus heard this he defended her. He said to Martha, “What you’re doing is fine. But under these circumstances Mary has chosen the better part.”
The second time we come across Mary is at the raising of her brother Lazarus, recorded in John 11. Lazarus has recently died, and Jesus comes back to the town of Bethany, but he waits outside. Martha hears that Jesus is there, and comes out to him. They have a conversation about the resurrection. Martha goes back and calls Mary, saying to her, “The Master is here, and he’s calling for you.” They’re not telling anybody that Jesus is there yet.
Mary leaves the house and comes quickly to Jesus, and then unlike Martha, Mary falls at his feet and says, “My Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” On both of these occasions we see Mary doing the same thing. She is at Jesus’ feet, learning from him.
Now that just isn’t merely a physical posture. It was a position that was assumed by those who were learning. Rabbis would sit at the feet of their master while he sat and expounded Scripture. Children would sit at the feet of their parents while they taught. That’s the way it was done in the Sabbath schools and so on. So the fact that she was at the feet really indicated that she was in a position where she was always anxious to learn about Jesus. Now I don’t think it takes a great deal of imagination to understand what happened. Here is a very sensitive woman, one who loves him and is anxious to learn from him. And whenever she has an opportunity she tries to learn.
During these times with Jesus she looks at him and not only does she listen to what he says but she is trying with all of the understanding and intuition of which she is capable to figure out what he means. It’s while she’s doing this that she sees something of the sorrow in his eyes. We’re told he was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” While she’s looking up into his face and seeing that, she comes to understand, as the others did not, that he was going to die.
She must have thought to herself, “What can I do to show that I do understand and that I love him and love him especially for what he is going to do? He’s going to die for me and for all the others who will believe on him.” And it’s at that point that she thinks of her ointment, and she goes and gets it, and then breaks it and pours it out upon Jesus.
At this point we need to ask the question: Do we thus learn from Jesus? She’s held forth as an example. That is undoubtedly why Matthew includes it here at this particular point. Do we learn as she learned? Do we spend much time with Jesus? Do we try to figure out what he is teaching and what he desires for us?